I’ve always been told that God chose the patriarchs. That God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That God specifically picked these men through which to carry out his plans, to bring about his people, his nation. I’ve always been told that these are the men that were important. That the promise had to come through these men. That without these men the Israelites could not be. And while these facts are all true a funny thing happened on the way to a male dominated reading of scripture…it turns out God chose the matriarchs too.
What it can’t be true. We’ve never sung songs about Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah. We’ve never sung songs about the great women of faith who ventured out on a journey leaving behind a family they knew to a land not their own simply because they were called by God (See upcoming note about Rebekah). No, we’ve only sung about the men, about the patriarchs, about “Abra, Abra, ham, ham, ham.” Those are the stories we know. God chose Abraham, God chose Abraham’s first born son, the son of his old age, through which to pass on the promise.
But there’s a problem. Ishmael was the firstborn. Ishmael was born to Abraham in his old age. Ishmael should have been the child of the promise. Sure, Ishmael comes through Hagar but Ishmael was the firstborn and the rightful heir. In fact, the law will later state that the firstborn son receives the inheritance no matter who the mother is, even if the mother is not the favorite wife. So Ishmael should have received the promise, Ishmael should have been the child of blessing. Why was he not? Because God said so. Yes, but why was he not? Because according to God, the mother does matter, the matriarch does matter.
“And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” (Genesis 17:15-21)
As it turns out, God chose the patriarchs and the matriarchs, the men and the women.
So what does this mean? On some levels, nothing. The story hasn’t changed. God’s promise goes through Isaac just as we always knew it did. God gave Sarah a child in her old age and Isaac carries on the blessing and the covenant.
However, on another level everything changes because we must realize that we haven’t always been reading the text accurately. We have been going to the text with blinders on assuming to see there what we have always believed. Assuming to see in the words of scripture the beliefs that have been ingrained in us over and over again, beliefs that may come more from tradition than from reality. And we must assume that if we’ve missed this one we’ve missed others as well.
I confess that I read the text through rose-tinted lenses. That I read the text and sometimes don’t fully see the beautiful colors that are there. We all do, because we all are flawed, we all are human. So does that mean that nobody’s interpretation is accurate, that nobody’s interpretation has merit? Of course not, but it should give us alittle more humility when we find people who don’t agree with us. And it should give us alittle more humility to confess that we may not always have it right. So we continue to study, we continue to seek truth, we continue to go back to scripture, thanking God for those who have gone before us because we stand on their shoulders as they have sought the Lord with all their heart. And at the same time we move forward, asking God to forgive us because we see only dimly, as in a mirror. Hopefully, someday we will see clearly.